POLITICS
07/15/2011 04:32 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2011

GOP Reps On Debt Ceiling Debate: Obama Using Seniors, Military As 'Human Shields' In 'Bluff'

WASHINGTON -- President Obama is "bluffing" about the impacts of a debt default and holding troops and the elderly as "human shields" in the deadlock over raising the nation's borrowing limit, Republicans charged Friday.

The group of conservatives were touting a piece of legislation that would tell the White House how to prioritize spending if credit were to get cut off.

The spending recommendation starts with paying interest on the debt, then funds military personnel, national security priorities and finally Social Security and Medicare.

According to the lawmakers, after those priorities were funded, about $30 billion per month would be left over for the president to deal with other responsibilities -- putting the lie to Obama's warning that Social Security checks might not go out after Aug. 2.

"As he stated himself, he's bluffing," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) "He told Eric Cantor, 'Don't call my bluff.' The president is admitting he's bluffing, but it's not right. His bluffing consists of threatening senior citizens, threatening disabled veterans."

"I truly believe that this president is completely out of touch with reality when it comes to the grave circumstances that we face in our economy," added Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.). "I am convinced that he is willing to use our senior citizens and our soldiers as human shields, as it were, to continue this spending binge that could ultimately destroy our country."

The bill's author, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), said the measure was not a first choice, but would help ensure the GOP gets the spending cuts it is seeking in debt ceiling negotiations.

"This is a backstop," Webster said. "We're not saying it's our favorite piece of legislation as far as the future, but we want spending cuts; we've got to have them."

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has warned that without a raise to the debt ceiling, the country will no longer be able to borrow beginning on Aug. 2.

The GOP legislators' idea seems simple enough: In the event the debt ceiling is reached, the government should shield its most vital expenditures and let the president figure out how to deal with the rest.

But a recent independent analysis shows there is no way for the government to stop borrowing without cutting spending to significant programs.

"After Aug. 2, there is a near certainty the federal government will run short of cash and be unable to pay approximately half its bills, other than interest," said Jay Powell, a scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who analyzed what the government would have to slash if the administration were to continue to pay interest on bonds.

The numbers are stark. According to the analysis, which relies on Treasury Department reports, the government would face $307 billion in expenses for the remainder of August, but would only have about $172 billion to spend. That leaves a shortfall of just over $134 billion. If the debt interest were paid, a 50 percent cut to the rest of the budget would result.

So what programs would go begging? As the GOP legislation suggests, the Treasury Department has no guidance from Congress on how to prioritize its 80 million-odd payments that are due next month.

According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, some experts think the administration has the power to prioritize. But the report also found Treasury officials believe that without legislation from Congress, they must pay the bills in the order they get them, and wait-list what can't be afforded.

That first-come, first-serve scenario is likely what prompted Obama to warn there's no guarantee Social Security checks will go out on Aug. 3 if the debt ceiling isn't raised.

But even assuming the GOP legislation passes, the math of the budget predicts an extremely ugly bottom line.

For instance, about $29 billion will be needed in August to pay interest on bonds and avoid a bond default. After that, Social Security benefits are expected to cost about $49 billion, with Medicare ringing up about $50 billion. If military salaries ($2.9 billion), veteran benefits ($2.9 billion) and contracts for all the vendors that support the military ($32 billion) are also paid, there would be very little money left.

"You can't cut 50 percent without cutting a lot of important and proper programs," Powell said, pointing to the FBI and Bureau of Prisons as examples of programs that could receive de facto cuts.

Despite the GOP representatives' desire to prioritize, there appear to be few easy cuts.

"Even the ones that might appear to be soft targets are really not that soft," Powell said, pointing to a popular conservative target: the Department of Education.

"People think, 'Oh the Department of Education, let's shut that down.' But what's in that is special ed programs," Powell said. "That's several billion dollars that go to states during August. The schools are going to open in September. This is assistance for special ed students. What happens there? Do they not go to school?"

The Bipartisan Policy Center also looked at a scenario that preserved not just Social Security, as the GOP has been demanding, but most of the popular safety net and education programs.

If those programs were all funded, Powell said, "the problem with that is you haven't paid one dollar -- not a dollar -- for defense. You've got all these people in uniform you can't pay any money."

Another problem with trying to pick and choose which programs to fund -- something administration officials seem to have considered -- is whether the Treasury Department, even with legislation, has the legal authority.

Many legal scholars believe such an action would be tantamount to a back-door line-item veto, and therefore be deemed unconstitutional.

"The precedent here is the case called Clinton vs. City of New York," said UCLA constitutional law professor Jonathan Zasloff, referring to the successful 1997 challenge of a line-item veto law passed by Congress.

"Congress passes a piece of legislation and the president knocks certain things out of the budget," Zasloff said, explaining the case. "The Supreme Court holds 6-3 that that's a violation of separation of powers, because only Congress can spend money -- the president can't -- and so the president cannot pick and choose among expenditures that he's given by Congress."

Webster denied the Clinton decision related to his proposed legislation.

Though he had earlier specified that his proposed legislation would leave the president with $30 billion left over to spend as he saw fit, Webster said the legislation did "not necessarily" give the president the power to make decisions about spending.

"This has nothing to do with the line-item veto -- that would be a power of the president," Webster said. "We have the purse strings and we can pass what we will."